Brain training activities are good for everyone because they build neuron connections. Who couldn’t use a few extra neuron connections, right?
I’ve gone into some depth about the what, why and how of brain training before, so I’ll spare you the details about all the cognitive skills brain training improves and how it helps ALL learners. Today we’re going to focus on two cognitive skills: ATTENTION and PROCESSING.
Actually, we’re going to focus on one subset of each: VISUAL ATTENTION and VISUAL PROCESSING
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What are visual attention and visual processing?
The word attention refers to the ability to stay focused on a particular thing. You might need sustained attention – staying focused for a period of time. You might need divided attention – focusing on more than one thing at a time. Or, you might need flexible attention – switching focus from one thing to another smoothly. There are times when all of these skills are necessary at once!
The word processing refers to the ability to take in and understand information. It also includes the speed at which you’re able to take in and understand the information.
So, visual attention is the ability to take in important visual information while filtering out the rest. It’s also the ability to sustain or focus on visual information for periods of time AND shift focus when necessary.
And, visual processing is the ability to take in and understand information you see. Preferably, processing the visual information at an acceptable speed.
Note: These are NOT the same thing as visual tracking. (Although many of the activities suggested below will support visual tracking.)
Visual Attention and Visual Processing Problems
If your child has trouble actually seeing things…like she needs glasses…this is NOT the same thing as visual attention or visual processing. Some clues you may need to work on visual attention and/or visual processing include:
- not recognizing differences in shapes, letters or numbers
- consistently writing shapes, letters or numbers incorrectly (after the age of 7)
- consistently reading letters, numbers or words incorrectly (after the age of 7)
- having trouble repeating a pattern – even while looking at it
- having a hard time remembering what was just seen
- difficulty with copywork
- difficulty with reading and/or spelling
- having trouble staying in the lines when writing or doing mazes
- difficulty identifying an object when only parts of it can be seen
- difficulty locating a specific image when the image is surrounded by other images
- even bumping into things frequently when walking
“We Have Major Problems”
If you notices a lot of these issues, it may be best to contact an occupational therapist. However, it won’t hurt to begin some of the brain training activities listed below to begin building the visual cognitive skills.
“We Have None of These Issues”
Awesome, but guess what? Anytime you practice attention or processing skills, you’re still building neuron connections. That means you can make a smartie even smarter! Think about it this way. If your son is preparing to take the ACT or SAT, for example, could strengthening the ability to take in visual information clearly and remember more with increased speed make a difference? I bet it could!
Help for Visual Cognitive Skills
In our homeschool, we do a little bit of brain training every day. The boys don’t mind because all our activities are game-like – so it’s like starting our day off with fun.
In about 15 minutes, we’re able to complete two or three activities. We rotate games to work on all the cognitive skills, so we’re probably doing visual attention and visual processing activities a few times a week. (The great thing about brain training games is many of them work on more than one cognitive skill!)
Below are several activities I’ve found to work really well to support visual attention and visual processing. These are all geared toward elementary students through adults. (I don’t have any experience brain training with preschoolers.)
These activities won’t cost you a penny. Just a little prep work on your part and off you go!
Place 10-20 items on a tray and cover the tray with a towel. Take the towel off and give your child 10-20 seconds to look at the items on the tray. After the time limit, cover the tray again. Complete one or the other of the following activities:
1. Ask your child to name as many of the items as possible.
2. Secretly remove one or more items from the tray. Take the towel off the tray and ask your child to determine which items are missing.
Ask your child to look closely for 30 seconds at all the details from a piece of art. (If you don’t already have art cards in your home, just pull up a famous work of art on the computer.) After the time limit, take the art away and ask one or more of the following questions:
1. What colors did you see? Shapes? Lines?
2. What was the action?
3. Who were the characters? What were they doing?
4. Did you notice a time of day or season?
5. What was the artist trying to portray through the picture?
6. Make up a story about the picture.
Yep. Believe it or not, a good old-fashioned game of tic-tac-toe is great for visual cognitive skills. Make it even better by playing it with the grid only – no written x’s or o’s. In other words, you and your child only point to the grid to “add” you x or o. In this way, you add another layer of visual attention to the game.
You draw something on a whiteboard, then your child draws the exact same thing – paying attention to each and every detail. You can draw pictures, letters, words, sentences, math facts, squiggles – anything. The goal is to gradually add more detail so that your child has to visually process more at one time.
b d p q Tracking Sheets
These b d p q discrimination worksheets aren’t at all fancy, but they work for a quick and easy brain training activity. The directions are included on the worksheets.
Indoor balloon games may not seem like brain training activities, but the use of large motor skills alongside the visual requirements of the games offers additional sensory input that makes a difference!
Play whichever of these indoor games you like with balloons: dodge ball, ping pong, catch, or batting. (You could use beanbags instead of balloons for some of the games. Of course, you can play outdoor sports with real balls, too.)
These card games are easy to find, fast to play and GREAT fun! I’ll be you have at least one of them in your game closet already! They’re listed in no particular order.
Monkey Memory – This game is similar to the “What’s Missing?” activity I mentioned above. For a slightly more difficult version, you may prefer Pictureka instead. (Playing the games on the Pictureka instruction sheet will be fine, but you can also lay out 6-12 of the cards in a row. Ask your child to “make connections” from one card to the next. After 30 seconds, secretly remove one or more of the cards and ask your child to determine what’s missing.)
Blink – This game is a goodie and really stretches all the visual cognitive skills as you match cards based on their characteristics.. It’s fast-paced and takes only a minute or two to complete.
SET – This game has been a family favorite for years. Not only is it great for visual cognitive skills, but it also requires a great amount of logical thinking as you race to gather sets of three cards based on their characteristics.
I Spy Eagle Eye – Are you familiar with Where’s Waldo books? This game is very similar, except you’re trying to find the objects before anyone else. Kids love it.
Spot It! – Oh my word. I cannot win in this game. My boys beat me every time. It’s a fun, fast-paced game that requires a great deal of visual processing speed as you try to match your card to the card in the middle before everyone else.
BrainBox – BrainBox games come in all sorts of subjects. Find one that compliments your current studies and it’s like a little review of concepts as well as a trivia game that also requires quick visual processing skills. These games are very unique!
Quick Pix Animals and Quik Pix Geography – Not only do these games train visual skills, but science and geography, too. I love when I can find brain training games that do double duty! The goal is to be the first to find a “partner card” from your pile that goes with the card in the middle.
Scrabble Slam – This fast-paced game requires at least two players. The goal is to be the first person to run out of letter cards as you slap them on a word in the middle to change its spelling. Besides working on visual processing speed, spelling is reinforced, too.
If you check your game shelf, I’ll bet you already own at least one or two of these, too! These typically take a little longer to play than the card games, but most can be played within 10 minutes. You’ll see that most of them go a long way in promoting logical thinking as well as visual cognitive skills. Again, they’re listed in no particular order.
Puzzles – All puzzles promote visual cognitive skills. Choose a level that challenges, but doesn’t frustrate your child. The particular puzzle I’ve linked here is an XXL puzzle. I especially like XXL puzzles for children who respond well to movement activities. Not to mention, they require some crossing of the midline, another important piece to building cognitive skills.
Speedy Match – In this game, you shake a container of colored balls that fall into a pattern which you must replicate with your own set of colored pieces. Alone, your child can leisurely replicate the pattern to practice visual attention and processing. Add opposing players and you add the necessity to process with speed.
Tangoes – This puzzle game uses a set of tangrams and picture cards to challenge you to recreate the pictures by building them with the tangram pieces. This is meant to be a solitary game.
Hoppers – Have you ever played the peg game at Cracker Barrel? This game is similar because you must hop little frogs over one another to remove them from the pond. A set of cards is included that requires you to set up the frogs on the pond differently each time – meaning your child isn’t likely to master the “formula” quickly, so the game will last a long time. It’s meant to be a solitary game.
Rush Hour – In this solitary game, cards prompt you to set up little cars in a certain traffic jam pattern. The player must move the cars to free up the traffic jam so a particular car can escape. There’s a free online version, too!
Color Code – In this solitary game, you are given pattern cards which you must recreate by stacking various colored pieces in a certain order. It’s harder than it sounds! I don’t like the online version as much as the hands-on version, but you can sample the game free online.
Blokus – This game is one of our favorites right now. While it can be played alone, it’s more fun with 2-4 players. Players are given a set of various shaped playing pieces. The goal is to strategically place your pieces on a grid in order to block other players from having room to place their own pieces.
Qwirkle – This is another favorite. You know Scrabble, right? Think of this as Scrabble with shapes. The pieces must be played according to their shape and color, and you must always build from existing pieces already in play. You must have at least two players, but three+ is even better.
Q-Bitz – This game can be played in several ways, all of which promote visual cognitive skills. It can be played alone or with up to four players. More players increase the need for visual speed as players race to recreate patterns using a set of colored cubes.
Pixy Cubes – This game is very similar to Q-Bitz. It’s slightly easier to play because the cubes only use solid colors, as opposed to the colors and dots on the Q-Bitz cubes.
Connect Four – You played this when you were little, didn’t you? I did! It’s a great 3-D version of tic-tac-toe.
Simon – I bet you played this when you were little, too! It’s a solitary electronic game where colored buttons light up (and make sounds) in various patterns. Once the pattern is finished, you must remember which buttons to press in order to complete the same pattern. It’s very challenging!
Guess Who? – We really love this game. Two players take turns asking questions about the items on the board to try to determine which item their opponent has chosen. While no speed is involved, there is quite a lot of visual attention required to single out the correct item and win the game.
Mastermind – This may well be one of my all-time personal favorites. It requires serious thought, strong visual attention skills and lots of logical thinking to find the correct pattern of colored pieces that your opponent has hidden. Save this game until at least 3rd grade. It’s tough, but really good!
Pattern Block Cards – Pattern blocks are a great tool for living math lessons. If you add a set of picture/puzzle cards, you have another activity for building visual cognitive skills. If you’re child is artistic by nature, these cards should be a hit.
Linking Cubes for Pattern Practice – Linking cubes are another tool I recommend for living math that work well for visual brain training. As the parent, you can build patterns with the cubes then ask your child to replicate the patterns with their own cubes. You can also ask you child to create their own patterns. Or, replicate a pattern using different colors than the originals. Or, create patterns based on criteria you provide – like ABBC (ie. red, blue, blue, yellow.)
Attribute blocks – Attribute blocks are a third manipulative I recommend for living math that also happen to require a great deal of visual skills in their use. You’ll appreciate these free activities which will teach you how to use the blocks.
Eye Can Learn has a series of fun online games that specifically work on visual discrimination skills. I think your children will love them.
Visual Mind Benders – There are several levels available in the Visual Mind Benders series from from Critical Thinking Press. They have a nice logical thinking component, too!
Dyslexia Games – This series of books was written specifically for children who struggle with dyslexia. In my review, you can see the books I’ve singled out to use for any child needing visual cognitive skills practice.
Dover Activity Books – There are tons of inexpensive game books from Dover Publishing that work on visual skills without your child ever knowing brain training is on the agenda. Here are several examples of books you might have around the house:
Where’s Waldo? – Where’s Waldo? books drive me crazy. While I hate them personally, they certainly are good for practicing visual attention! You can likely find several versions at your library.
Mercy. That was a lot of information, wasn’t it? I hope you’re able to use several of these ideas to help improve visual attention and visual processing in your children. I think you’ll be amazed at the improvement!
I Teach Brain Training Workshops!
One of my favorite workshops to present is my brain training workshop because it’s very hands-on and sends you home with so many practical ideas. If you can gather a group of parents together within a reasonable distance from Lexington, KY (or provide transportation and lodging for longer distances), we can have a lot of fun together! I can put together brain training workshops that last anywhere from one hour to six hours. Are you interested? Let’s talk!
You might also enjoy my Homeschool Snapshots interview about brain training.
Disclaimer: I am not an occupational therapist or licensed in brain training. While I do have a master’s degree in education, I do not have any extensive training in special needs. I only present this information based on my personal experiences in our homeschool where I have seen improvements in my children with consistent time spent doing brain training activities.